At the end of our interview about State by State, when talking about the new writers that the anthology might introduce readers to, Sean Wilsey mentioned one writer who he thought was in that category, until he went ahead and introduced himself to readers on his own: "When we started working on this project nobody had heard of Charles Bock and now he's gone and published this wonderful novel." The novel, of course, is Beautiful Children, which earlier this year became one of those rare fiction debuts that jump directly into the heart of the conversation. Eleven years in the making, it's a sprawling story about a sprawling city: Las Vegas, where Bock grew up, coming home after school every day to, yes, the pawn shop his mom and dad owned in the heart of what was then the city's gambling center. Ambitious, fearless, and passionate about the lost kids who wander through its pages, it's hard to imagine any discussion of Nevada books from now on that doesn't include it. (The cover I've used below is from the paperback, due out in January: is that another Charles Burns cover? Man, it looks fantastic, at least at 160 pixels.)
Bock knows his childhood wasn't like most people's. Here's a bit of local color from his State by State essay about a moment in time that, a decade later, that ever-changing city had already left behind:
And there I am, ten years old, emerging from the back of the store, slamming down a wooden security gate. To an electronic chime, I head out the front door into the July heat, darting in between tourists, down Fremont Street, running underneath vents that blow cool air during hundred-degree days and beckon pedestrians into a casino's comfortable darkness. A giant mosaic of the queen of hearts stares up at me from the sidewalk; golden flecks sparkle beneath my every step. The famous winking cowboy sign, Vegas Vic, looms ahead, moving its right arm, pointing toward the Pioneer casino. As Vic's recorded voice booms, Howdy pardner, welcome to downtown Las Vegas, I check the time and temperature on the digital clock atop the Mint, and run the block and a half to visit my grandfather--if he doesn't have customers, he'll do magic tricks for me. Or maybe I head over to the liquor store at the Horseshoe for candy and soda and then sneak into their casino, avoiding the security guards so I can stare at the million dollars displayed in a giant horseshoe.
And here's Bock's Nevada book lineup, with his own introduction:
I was asked to come up with some books on Nevada I liked. I disqualified a few books from my list because they are a little too easy. You really don't need me to tell you to look at Leaving Las Vegas and/or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--one was made into a superb movie, the other is nothing less than iconic literary marker. So those two aren't on the list. Which isn't to say the books above aren't great, they are, or that you, sweet lovely reader, shouldn't read them if you haven't, because yes, of course you should. But I thought I'd maybe list some others.
Next thing to tell you: I grew up in Southern Nevada and this list is tilted heavily toward Vegas and Southern Nevada, I'm sorry about that Northern and Central Nevada, it's not intentional or personal, it's a result of my limitations.
To be honest, I'm doing the bulk of this while waiting to get on a plane. It's an incomplete list. I don't pretend that it's definitive. But maybe you'll get turned onto something that before you hadn't known about. I hope so.
Anyway, here's a few good books that involve Nevada, presented in no particular order:
- Literary Las Vegas, edited by Mike Tronnes: This is a must-have if you want to read about Las Vegas. The truth is, most of the excellent writing about the city has been nonfiction magazine pieces. This excellent collection of essays captures a huge amount of those pieces, and puts them all within your reach. Some fiction is in here, if memory serves correctly, but it's the nonfiction that stars in this collection. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are some of the big name contributors, Tom Wolfe's famous piece also is in here, and Nick Tosches contributes an excellent intro, but some lesser knowns also have penned jewels, like Susie Berman's memoir about growing up the daughter of a Jewish mobster.
- Northline and The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin: Vlautin is an alt-country singer and songwriter and his gifts translate so well to print that it's almost a crime not to read these books without some sort of sad acoustic countrified folk song in the background. With poetic, sparse, almost flattened writing, these two novels capture the seamy side of Reno, and tell the stories of people trying to rebuild their little lives, while always displaying clear vision, generosity, and a wonderful, huge heart.
- The Ivory Coast by Charles Fleming: This literary detective-type novel is one of the better historical novels about Vegas during its rat-pack heyday. The story takes place in Vegas in 1955, when hotels were still segregated and stars like Louie Armstrong still weren't allowed to enter a casino through the front door. A white trumpeter named Deacon is asked to do a hit job on a messanger; simultaneously, an African-American one-time boxer, Worthless Worthington Jones, prepares to open the city's first black casino. The murder/mystery aspect keeps things chugging along and the historical details are dead on. A very enjoyable read, indeed.
- Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick: Hauser's oral biography of Ali is the definitive Muhammed Ali book. Guralnick's second volume in his bio of The King chronicles Elvis's life from 1960 forward. Both books spend significant amounts of time in Las Vegas, and it seems to me that if you want to understand Las Vegas, you probably should spend some time with one or both of these figures.
- Positively Fifth Street by James McManus: In whatever year this was, McManus went out to Las Vegas to cover a murder trial. A recreational poker player, he also tried, almost as a lark, to play himself into the World Series of Poker. Well, he ended up at the final table, playing for the title. This book, lengthened from an award-winning Harper's article, does a great job of chronicling the ins and outs of the world of poker and the appeal of gambling and also the easy slide into the dark side of Vegas.
- Las Vegas Noir, edited by Jarret Keene and Todd James Pierce: In spring of 2008, this anthology of noirish short stories set in Las Vegas came out as part of a series from Ashkasic Books. I'm not a huge noir fan, or the biggest fan of anthologies, but Bliss Esposito's short story alone is worth the price of the collection, and there's a number of writers in this who I'd bet will go on to excellent things. Beyond all the setups and reversals of noir, this book provides a fairly unyielding look at Vegas.
- How to Make Love Like a Porn Star by Jenna Jameson with Neil Strauss: Honestly, I'm just listing this because Jenna Jameson went to high school like a mile from my house and in fact, her school was closer to my house than the crappy high school I ended up attending. I just wanted to drop that little bit of science. The book is actually kinda uneven, although the pictures are pretty awesome. In case you were wondering, Ashlyn Gere is another all time great porn star from Vegas.
Okay. Thanks a lot my brothers and sisters.